John Cantu doing the door at the Zoo John doing the door at the Holy City Zoo

A Brief History of a Place That Launched a Thousand Quips

by John Cantu ©

Johnny Carson owes it a debt of gratitude. So does David Letterman. As well as the casting director for Saturday Night Live and dozens of other television shows. Who or rather what is "it?" "It" was the uniquely named Holy City Zoo, San Francisco's longest running comedy club and the nation's fourth oldest comedy club. The Zoo has produced more televised showcased comics than any other club in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Among the Zoo's alumni are a raft of television veterans. Besides the most famous graduate, Robin Williams, the list includes: Mike Dugan, Michael Pritchard, Kevin Meany, Rob Schneider, Will Durst, Dan St. Paul, Bobby Slayton, Dexter Madison. Not to be left out: Paula Poundstone, David Feldman, Billy Jaye, Larry "Bubbles" Brown, Jeremy Kramer, Carrie Snow, Dr. Gonzo, Dana Carvey, Nora Dunn, Sue Murphy, and A. Whitney Brown. (I'm half-brain dead. Jeeze there should be about 50 more names on this list! So if I left you out, sorry!!)

Any way let's not forget the bartenders: Tonight Show writer Tom Finnigan as well as Karen Warner (Author The Bartender's Joke Book, San Francisco Trivia Book, & What's So Funny About Being Catholic?).

The Zoo's tremendous influence was belied by its unimposing Clement Street exterior. Walking by, you would have little evidence of its importance in the comedy world. It shared a stark wood facade with (and was virtually overshadowed by) its next door neighbor, the Last Day Saloon.

The shoe-box size interior also gave little clue to its importance. Probably the most common reaction from newcomers was: "It's tiny. It's cramped. It only serves beer and wine? This is the famous Holy City Zoo?" The room was maybe only 10 feet wide and 100 feet long with seating capacity of 78, but this is the club that begat comedy in the Bay Area and was used as a major network audition room eight to twelve times yearly (and these shows were open to the public).

The Zoo was credited as a major influence for the national comedy boom that began in 1979 when Playboy magazine did a seven page article on the club's concept of an all-comedy club. Several club owners around the country used that article as the blueprint for their own clubs and now it's hard to find a town across the land that doesn't have some form of a comedy venue.

It all started sometime in early 1975 when Daryl Victor Dubin, a budding comedian, meandered into the Zoo one evening and saw a performance by Zania, a belly dancer featured every Wednesday. Smitten by her sinewy good looks, Dubin quickly invented a reason to be there on a regular basis. "Give me the stage during the time between Zania's sets and I'll persuade my comedian friends to perform for exposure," he promised the owner, who agreed to the deal. Thus was born the San Francisco comedy boom.

Within a few weeks, more people were coming to see comedy than belly dancing. The owner decided to open Sunday as an all comedy open-mike night. I was the producer and MC of these shows, the first ever all comedy nights at the Holy City Zoo. Within a few months another slow night, Tuesday, was added as an all comedy night. Monday nights, which traditionally had been a hootenanny open-mike night, was changed and began alternating comedians with singers in an effort to bolster a sagging attendance. Within six months, Monday became an all comedy night as well.

In a couple of years, the Zoo had become the hangout for performers like: Williams, Poundstone, Pritchard, Snow, Meany, Barry Sobel, and Bob Sarlatte. Often comics would stop by to do free guest shows before or after they headed out to paying gigs.

Television producer, George Schlatter (creator/producer of The Comedy Awards Show), made Los Angeles aware of the quality performers at the Zoo when he cast zoo performers: Robin Williams, Jim Giovanni, Bill Rafferty, and Toad The Mime for the New Laugh-In Show.

It hasn't all been good news, however. In the mid-eighties, bad management caused a serious erosion of business. One management team almost put the club under with a garish decorating overhaul and a name change to the universally detested "Ha-Ha-A-Go-Go." (Even San Francisco 3-dot columnist, Herb Caen wrote "Ha-Ha-A-Go-Go must-a-go-go.")

Fortunately, the club was co-purchased by comedian headliner Jim Samuels and his manager Bob Fisher. They eliminated the garish doodads, revived the "Holy City Zoo" name and refocused on the Zoo's core strength - being the club where comics developed and learned their craft and where professional comics returned to pay homage performing for free or below their market rate. Owners Samuels and Fisher, along with manager Becky Erwin, did an admirable job of keeping this comedy institution afloat for about a half-dozen more years. Alas, it finally did go under in the early 1990s.

Probably the most commonly asked question is: "How did the 'Zoo' get its name?" While it sounds apocryphal, the following is the true story. In 1970 the original owner was getting his (unnamed) new club ready to open. Driving back from a Los Angeles business trip, he stopped for lunch in a small Santa Cruz Mountain town named Holy City.

Due to financial woes, the city leaders were closing the municipal zoo and was having a going-out-of-business sale of the tables and chairs from the zoo's cafe. The owner bought them and as he was paying for his purchases he started to balk, "Wait a minute. I've spent too much money. I still need a couple of hundred dollars to hire a sign painter."

The zoo keeper, a shrewd negotiator said, "Sign? You need a sign? Here, we're out of business, take ours." He pulled the sign down and tossed it in the back of the owner's truck. The owner being an astute business person decided to save $200 on a sign and register the name already on the sign he had been given: The Holy City Zoo.

And that my friends is a brief history of a place that launched a thousand quips.

NEXT: What The Heck Kinda Name Is Holy City Zoo for a Comedy Club?